William G. Bowen, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University and founding chairman of ITHAKA, has a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education today. Bowen was president of the Mellon Foundation when that organization provided substantial early funding for MIT OpenCourseWare.
In the piece, Bowen urges a measured approach to online learning that is evidence-based, uses appropriate and effective tools, and is supported by an open mind-set toward change in education. He also speaks eloquently for preserving important aspects of the campus experience:
As we contemplate a rapidly evolving world, in which greater and greater use will surely be made of online modes of teaching, I am convinced that there are central aspects of life on our traditional campuses that must be not only retained but strengthened.
First is the need to emphasize the great value of “minds rubbing against minds.” We should resist efforts to overdo online instruction, important as it can be. There are, of course, both economic constraints and practical limitations on how much education can be delivered in person. But those of us who have benefited from personal interactions with brilliant teachers (some of whom became close friends), as I certainly have, can testify to the inspirational, life-changing aspects of such experiences.
The half-life of course content can be short, as we all know; but great teachers change the way their students see the world (and themselves) long after the students have forgotten formulas, theorems, and even engaging illustrations of this or that proposition. Moreover, a great advantage of residential institutions is that genuine learning occurs more or less continually, and as often, or more often, out of the classroom as in it.
That cliché, repeated by countless presidents and deans, conveys real truth. Late-night peer-to-peer exchanges offer students rare access to the perspectives of other people. As one of my greatest teachers, Jacob Viner, never tired of warning his students, “There is no limit to the amount of nonsense you can think, if you think too long alone.”
For more of Bowen’s thoughts on open and online education, check out this talk he gave for MIT OpenCourseWare in 2004.